Christina Dong ’22 didn’t grow up thinking she wanted to be a scientist. It wasn’t until sophomore year of high school that her interest in physics was awakened by quantum mechanics. Although she struggled in her AP Physics C course, she stuck to her newfound interest. That interest led her to major in physics at Pomona College and ultimately, a new love: aerospace engineering.
Dong was recently awarded a competitive Brooke Owens Fellowship which matches undergraduate students to paid internships at aerospace companies across the country and pairs them with executive-level leaders for one-on-one mentorship. In the most selective application year yet, Dong was selected among 51 other exceptional women and other gender minorities.
As a “Brookie,” Dong will spend part of her summer interning at Hawkeye360, a geospatial analysis company in Herndon, Virginia, that specializes in precise mapping of radio frequency emissions. Dong will also meet the other 50 “Brookies” in person at the Brooke Owens Summit in July.
Dong had been thinking about aerospace for some time but didn’t know how to get there. A lot of those who go into the aerospace field have degrees in engineering, she says. When she learned of the Brooke Owens Fellowship, Dong knew that even though she was not an engineering major, her experiences in physics and her identities outside of physics—her creativity, character and service-oriented activities—would align with the fellowship’s requirements.
Dong’s goal for this summer is to learn all she can about what goes on in aerospace, keep developing software and programming skills, and hopefully solder some electronics together at Hawkeye360—the last activity would make her very happy, she says.
Dong admits that studying physics wasn’t an easy road. “None of it comes easy to me, but there is almost nothing as satisfying as the lightbulb moment when I finally grasp a difficult concept,” she says.
For Dong, officially declaring to major in physics was “one of the easiest decisions” she’s made because of the support, camaraderie and collaboration she experienced in the Physics Department. “I have felt included with my identity as woman in STEM here, and everyone in the department, students and faculty alike, all take an interest in who I am outside of academia. This has made all of the difference in having the courage to continue in STEM.”
Like many Pomona students, Dong has been able to explore two distinct interests by double majoring in physics and dance. She admits both majors require a lot of time commitment, but her passion has made the journey easier. Dance taught her to persevere through tough situations, to express herself and to think creatively.
“[Dance] also keeps me sane after spending several hours cooped in the lab, so dance has made me a better scientist,” says Dong of the interdisciplinary nature of her Pomona education. “On the flip side, I also draw so much inspiration from science to choreograph dance pieces. The past few dance pieces I’ve made at Pomona have all had a science connection. For example, ‘Diffraction’ and ‘Superposition’ draw upon concepts in quantum mechanics.”
Pomona College wouldn’t be the same for Dong if it weren’t for her faculty advisor and thesis reader, Seely W. Mudd Professor of Physics Janice Hudgings. In her four years at Pomona, Dong has either taken a class with or been a teaching assistant for Hudgings every semester.
Hudgings says, “I scramble each semester to line Christina up as a TA for my lab courses. She combines highly effective teaching with a real talent for experimental lab work.”
Dong says Hudgings put her in contact with alumni who went into the aerospace field once she expressed a burgeoning interest in the topic. “She has helped instill so much confidence in myself as a scientist, and I am forever grateful.”
Last summer, as a junior at Pomona, Dong was a WAVE Fellow at Caltech’s Aerospace Robotics and Control Lab run by Soon-Jo Chung, a Caltech professor and Jet Propulsion Laboratory research scientist, and graduate student Sorina Lupu. The experience allowed her to do a literature review for a hiking robot project, help build a custom human gait suit and write an Extended Kalman Filter algorithm, as well as gain a supporter and mentor in Lupu.
“Christina is an outstanding student who made amazing contributions during her SURP project in the Aerospace Robotics and Control Lab,” says Lupu, who continues to mentor Dong on her senior physics project—a continuation of the summer’s robot project.
“Science is not a solo endeavor, despite the myth of the lone genius. With something as challenging and daunting as space exploration, we truly need all the diverse talent women bring,” says Dong. “For me personally, having the opportunity to be a Brookie reaffirms that I do belong in science. And not only that, but there are other women who are after the same goal as me, where we can all support and encourage each other to keep going.”
After her fellowship, Dong plans to work full-time in the aerospace industry, and eventually, she wants to pursue a master’s or Ph.D. in engineering. “But as of right now, I have so much to learn on the job and am excited to have a break from homework.”